WASHINGTON — Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain is again threatening to hold up President Donald Trump’s defense nominations over poor communication between Pentagon and congressional officials, this time in regards to unannounced relaxed Army enlistment policies.
“It’s a problem we’ve been having with this administration,” said McCain, R-Ariz., at a confirmation hearing for three nominees on Tuesday. “We should have been told about this before it showed up in a USA Today article. The Army did not respond to a question of how many waivers, if any, have been issued since the policy was changed.”
McCain said he feels the only way his committee can get information from the Pentagon is to mandate defense officials testify in opening hearings, or “we stop confirming people for jobs” to force the issue.
At issue is a USA Today report from last week that said individuals with depression, substance abuse issues, and even a history of self-mutilation as of August can apply for waivers to enlist in the Army.
The move comes as Army recruiting officials face a goal of 80,000 new soldiers for fiscal 2018, 11,000 above the fiscal 2017 goal they struggled to meet.
In a statement Monday, Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel Lt. Gen. Thomas Seamands denied that there has been a policy change.
“The Army has made no such policy change and follows the accession standards prescribed by the Department of Defense,” he said in a statement.
But the service did acknowledge that waivers for recruits can now be approved by Army Recruiting Command officials, instead of Department of the Army headquarters. Seamands downplayed that as a minor administrative change.
Lawmakers did not.
“We cannot sacrifice quantity for quality. It’s that simple,” said Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I.
The Army is pushing back against a recent USA Today story that said the service is lowering its standards to allow more recruits with histories of self-mutilation, bipolar disorder and other issues.
Reed and others on the panel requested additional information on the impact of the changes. James McPherson, nominee to be the Army’s general counsel, promised to make it a top priority if he is confirmed.
Whether that will move forward quickly is unclear.
The committee has held confirmation hearings for 15 nominees since the start of the month, with two more scheduled for Thursday. But McCain has stalled the nomination process several times this year already over concerns about Pentagon officials withholding information from oversight committees.
McCain said he is unhappy with how the policy change was handled, and opposed softening any enlistment standards. He also said lawmakers would look into legislation to block any such changes.
“Self-mutilation is something that comes home to roost,” he said. “Someone who self mutilates, I don’t understand the eligibility there.”
Currently, 11 of Trump’s Defense Department civilian nominees have passed out of committee and are awaiting a full Senate vote. Among them is Mark Esper, who is nominated to be the next Army secretary. Lawmakers have confirmed 17 defense officials since the start of the year.